I feel strange. I don’t think I’ve been acting particularly oddly so it’s probably not noticeable to most people, but I’ve been having strange experiences that make me feel a stranger to myself. After the Great Banana Skin Episode I felt I was escaping the world of “unusual ideas” and “unshared experiences”. I had no evidence for this. Perhaps I just wanted to feel… well, not strange for a bit. But the truth is that experiences like this, which only emerged in my late 30s, have changed me, and changed me forever. I can never be “unstrange” again.
Aldous Huxley famously used William Blake’s phrase “the doors of perception” to illustrate his mescaline-induced psychedelic experiences (a phrase which in turn gave the band The Doors their name). I feel that my psychotic-type experiences over recent years have flung open a door in my mind that can never be pushed shut again. Even the glimpse that I have had – and of course my symptoms are very minor compared to many – has destroyed the boundary between what is real and what is not, making me unable trust my own senses or beliefs. Even three years ago I would have laughed at the idea I might need to ask somebody else work out what was real and what was not but this is now a regular occurance. Asking makes me feel like a child, perhaps because we expect the barrier between reality, fantasy and dream to be more porous in children.
Since the banana thing I have had a gustatory (taste) hallucination, which is a complete new one for me. On two separate occasions I have not only seen blood (because I continue to be very clumsy on lamotrigine and cut myself more often than I used to) but tasted it. I didn’t imagine the taste of it, I tasted it, strong and metallic, without having brought the cut to my mouth. I could not rid my mouth of it for a good while after the tiny wounds had stopped bleeding. I don’t usually get visual hallucinations either but in a ladies loo recently looked at the stainless steel lock and it was slipping. Not melting away like a Salvador Dalí painting. It retained its form perfectly, it was just sliding down the door. I moved around the cubicle, casting a shadow in case it was a trick of the light. Still the lock slid down and down. I put the tip of the finger about a centimetre under the lock. I could feel nothing, yet when I took my finger away the lock continued its slow, continuous movement. It was moving. It was. But it wasn’t.
Harder to cope with has been the return of paranoia and the sense that They are after me. I had a text conversation with my dad that was longer than usual and in which he referred to a prior conversation I did not recall having. I struggled to grasp what he meant and the exchange began to feel like a guessing game I could not win. The texts also felt wrong; they were shorter and used a “text speak” contraction I didn’t remember my dad ever using. At this point I began to get really frightened, feeling played with, toyed with, that They were enjoying hijacking the conversation to make me doubt my own memory and mind. I ran into the living room, crying. “Help,” I said to Tom, “I need help!” and he held me tightly against him. Taking a look at the texts he could see what I meant, but that it seemed to him more likely that my dad had sent short messages because he had been busy. Well, I don’t know about that because I can’t look at those texts again, not even to delete them. When my dad rang later that week I couldn’t bear to ask him about whether he had really sent them. I am terrified he might say no, and to be honest I’d rather not know.
I also have a sense of a looming “presence”, a dangerous, evil presence, in my flat. Last week when Tom was at work I heard a voice that sounded like it came from another room. I have written before about feeling like I am a character in a horror film I didn’t audition for and this was the same, me treading gingerly down the hall as the stereotypical horror movie “girl in apartment” who checks rooms and cupboards until the baddie jumps out at her. I felt almost as if I was being filmed and a thought came to me – I say “came to me” as it did not feel like the product of my own mind, it felt like it was dropped in there like a pebble, a thought unlikely to occur to a Quaker. It was, “I wish I had a gun”, delivered in a very neutral way. There was no emphasis, no stress on any word. No emotion.
A couple of nights later I got up to visit the bathroom. The thirst that lithium engenders makes this a nightly occurrence. Usually I take a torch so I don’t have to subject my eyes to the ridiculously bright hall light. I went to kitchen and got a drink; it has to be flavoured to slake the lithium thirst yet calorie free for the sake of my teeth, so I usually drink Fanta zero. I finished the bottle and went to hall cupboard to get another bottle, which I popped into the fridge. I tell you this so you know that while I was really quite sedated I was very far from being asleep or sleepwalking. On my way back to bed the light from my torch began to flicker on the walls around me like cold, white firelight. I knew this couldn’t happen with an LED torch, so I switched it off and switched on again. It was fine then but I when I repeated the action the flickering returned. I suddenly had a sense of a very dark presence and I ran back to bed, shutting the door firmly behind me. I could not lie on my left side because I was afraid of turning my back on it. I couldn’t lie on my right side because I did not want to show it my face. I lay on my back and tried to sleep but was troubled with images from psychological horror films, actual or created by my own brain, I couldn’t tell you.
Maybe you now understand how difficult it has become to separate dreams, hallucinatory/delusionary experience and reality. As part of my attempts to be more physically active I have where possible been taking stairs instead of the lift or escalator. In a tube station I saw a sign to the stairs, so I followed it and found myself on a wide, tiled staircase, alone. With every turn I reached a small landing and as I wound my way down I passed landing after landing, all empty except for me, all looking exactly the same. There was no sound. I reached a point where I genuinely did not know whether I was awake or dreaming or hallucinating and I began to feel as if I might be trapped in there forever, walking on and on in some kind of stupor. One further turn spilled me, bemused, out onto the station platform.
I have never tried Huxley’s beloved mescaline. Once as a student I took acid (something that now looks like a pretty stupid thing to do in the context of having a recent diagnosis of bipolar). For a time in what I now feel was a rather tedious, “wow, man!” kind of way I felt it had been tremendously significant, a life-changing “door opening” experience. It wasn’t, although it did teach me something about how the human brain can pull together something bigger that its parts out of almost anything around it. No, what really gave the door an extra kick open was not LSD but a prescription drug, sodium valproate. An antiepileptic, valproate has for some time been used to treat bipolar and in 2011 it seemed a good idea to try it instead of the highly sedating quetiapine. You can read all about my experiences here, but the short version is that I had a very, very rare reaction and started hallucinating. These definitely weren’t psychosis; I had no belief that anything I saw was real. They mostly swam out of the dark when I closed my eyes, popping like soap bubbles to be immediately replaced by other images. They were mostly of three types: faces; geometric patterns, very much like the tail end of my one and only acid trip; and segmented things like worms or ladders. Most side effects resolve themselves once the medicine is stopped. Not so my “visions”. It is now three and a half years since I went back onto quetiapine instead yet whenever the more psychotic type-stuff recurs, so do the visions. Never with the same intensity as that first time, thank God, but they can become distressing. They “pop” so quickly it’s hard to record them but today I have had some kind of tribal mask, faces of people screaming or melting, animals’ faces, a snaking bridge made of boards.
So I am strange. I am a stranger. Faces come out of the dark, some of them ugly. I fear being trapped in an endlessly descending zone of altered conscious where I won’t remember my name. And I don’t how to predict, let alone stop it.